Q: What Happens When You Run a School Like a Business? A: You Go Broke.

The students learned how to sit in cubicles and write memos. The staff learned how to ask for a bailout.

 

Jennifer Hiner echoes many of Mirsch's criticisms. Hiner, who graduated with honors this year, says she had "a couple of great teachers" at MBA. But that was less the rule than the exception. According to Hiner, one math teacher routinely doled out good grades for kids who didn't cause trouble, regardless of competence. "I showed up every day, I didn't talk to anyone, and I got an A," she says. "But I didn't know what I was doing. I feel like I'm worse at math than I was in middle school because I haven't done it in four years."

After taking a placement test at Normandale Community College recently--she hopes to go to medical school one day--Hiner says she learned she would need to start with pre-algebra.

Laura Mirsch: "It was total bedlam. You were supposed to do your work in the cube, but a lot of the kids were making prank calls."
Michael Dvorak
Laura Mirsch: "It was total bedlam. You were supposed to do your work in the cube, but a lot of the kids were making prank calls."

Asked about Hiner's claims, MBA director Neff says he finds them "believable." But Neff adds: "We've had staffing changes in our math department and very precise criteria set forth to eliminate that sort of thing. Math is absolutely the center of attention of the MBA and we feel we're turning the corner." He points out that math teachers are in demand these days. Charter schools--which are not unionized and typically only pay about 80 percent of the average public-school wage--have a difficult time keeping good ones.

In the view of some former MBA teachers and board members, math is hardly the only trouble area. "MBA was never a stable place to work and most good teachers were always looking for other opportunities," writes one ex-teacher, who didn't want to be identified. "This was because of the constant pressure that came from knowing that the doors could close at any moment and from erratic, and sometimes vindictive, management."

Kathy Mirsch--a former chair of the MBA board, a volunteer coach, and the mother of Laura--says she found herself frustrated during her years of involvement with the school. She blames many of the school's failings on a "totally unrealistic" business plan. "[The founders] had this vision of what they thought would happened," she says. "They thought a bunch of well-behaved, highly motivated kids were going to come to the school and work in cubicles and be self-motivated and self-directed. It was ridiculous."

Mirsch figures the most recent bailout by the St. Paul City Council has less to do with genuine optimism over the MBA's prospects than the considerable influence of the school's boosters. She doubts that will make much of a difference in the long run.

"I would not recommend this school to anyone," she adds. "I think it's living on borrowed time."

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